She sat on the bed in her sister’s room. Linda had left for college a few weeks before, and she had finally been allowed to move into her large lavender room with the ruffled curtains framing the picture windows that looked out onto East Twin Lake. She watched the occasional Sailfish or Sunfish skim along the glassy surface, carefree as the white geese who would beat their wings backwards floop, floop while they blew along the water for a soft landing. She could see the pond lilies on the near edge of the lake, and remembered once rowing a boat near to them, and diving among the mass of round green pads to harvest some of them for her mother to float in a wide, shallow bowl of water. Their layers of waxy white petals and enormous golden pollen-encrusted stamens sang to her of China somehow; their long roots grabbed at her as she tried to float above and among them to steal their treasures, then clutched their stems in her teeth and behind her ears and swam them back to the little boat.
She thought about how the fusspot Marcella Parsons next door had seen them, and just had to tell her that it was a crime to pick them, and she could go to jail, as though she were ready to make the call herself. But then, Mrs. Parsons loathed her for not dating her creepy son, and calling him football head in seventh grade. She blushed at her past cruelty, but admitted to herself that she still thought he was a football head at sixteen.
Her father had had a third heart attack a week ago, and was still in the hospital in Ravenna. She and her best friend Judy had just smuggled in the Arby’s sandwich and Jamocha shake he had begged her to bring him when they spoke on the phone the day before.
When they’d gone into his hospital room, her heart had broken in two. Her bearish six-foot-three father looked so small in the big white hospital bed, the top half cranked up to a semi-sitting position. Gowned in a flimsy white smock, dark circles under his eyes, his face had a pallor she’d never seen him wear before. Well, except for the other two heart attacks, she then recalled. But somehow this was different.
He’d tried a bit of smile, but it looked almost sheepish, rather than brave, as he’d surely intended. They’d stayed long enough for him to consume the contraband food; she’d hoped it wouldn’t kill him, but had known her mother would kill her if she discovered her infraction. She and her father made a pact to keep their secret, pretending it was a joke; they both knew it really wasn’t.
They’d made small talk in that nervous way hospital visits induce; God, she loathed hospitals. How many Christmases and Thanksgivings had her family spent in one hospital or another over the years? Of course she knew it was coincidental that her grandparents would have medical emergencies on holidays, but it seemed to stretch the bounds of credulity somehow. She’d even familiarized herself with large hospitals well enough to feel comfortable spooking around them to find the nurseries; they were at least happier placeswithin the halls of sickness and misery.
As they drove home to Kent, Judy chattered away, but she scarcely heard her. She had suddenly realized why this time her father looked worse to her, more fragile, and less guaranteed to live. She could still smell the fear in the room, both hers and his. It had blended with the antiseptic hospital odors and made her stomach roil; she lit a cigarette to push both the scents and the awareness away.
Safe back home, she unlocked the awkward combination front door lock, push-in-7-3-4-2- twists, Gawd, and let herself in. Her mother was gone, but no note was on the kitchen counter.
She hurried down the pale carpeted stairs, flew to her room, and sat on the bed. Not her bed, but Linda’s; hers was in the tiny cave of a room across the hall, with one tiny window on the world: a short stretch of the neighbor’s block foundation and a few white boards. She almost headed for the little womb of a room, but instead sat frozen as memories flooded in; her faced burned with shame and injustice, and the familiar sense of being considered…a bad seed, the problem daughter. Still-frames of her mother’s accusing face fairly screaming at her last night filled her mind, her body…and the feeling of the blood draining from her head into her legs in shock and bewilderment washed over her again in waves. She felt the hollow confusion, and felt ill.
You caused Daddy’s heart attack, she’d accused her daughter, and spat out that because she’d been late getting home from a date some night before it, and his anger or worry caused his heart to go frazzled. Or something. It made no sense at all, it was cockeyed-crazy thinking, but she could tell her mother believed it. She’d hated that she kept staring at her mother’s dark red lipstick forming the cruel words; her short curly hair created a halo of hatred and…insanity.
The images pulled her back into the familiar hole; its name was Despair, though she didn’t know it then. She could sense, rather than see, its edges and shape; feel the rough texture of its walls as she crouched and waited, her eyes squeezed shut.
Glimpses of the past scrolled by: her mother’s car accident injuries; the failure of the doctors to discover any cause for her wild pain; hints that she was conjuring it up for attention. ‘PsychoCybernetics’; they gave her the books. She’d spent nearly a year in bed while her two daughters had kept the house together, cooked, and answered the little bell she rang for help. Doctors had armed her with boatloads of the yellow and blue and red pills she had eventually become addicted to; she supplemented them with highballs. Even later when some specialist had later found some cracked cervical vertebrae and fused them, she couldn’t get better. Her soul and mind and spirit had been damaged too far; the pity of it was immeasurable. We never acknowledged it to each other; even my sister refused to listen to me when I tried.
In the hole, the vertical cave, the voices would have at her: a chorus of accusers and malign interpreters of her life; cruel demons who had the power to leave her shuddering with guilt and anguish. She had no idea that they were extreme versions of the critical voices who’d made her feel small and weak in her real life; they came to her when her defenses were down.
Defenseless now, she envisioned herself so often listening to her parents from the bottom step of the staircase; they had no idea it was her personal intercom to discovering what they really thought about things. Perched on their throne-chairs near the widow overlooking the lake, sipping cocktails, she would often hear the litany of lies her mother would invent about her, just inventing things out of whole cloth. She would long to leap up and refute them, but never could. Never did, at any rate. She might go outside the door to her pot stash, have a few tokes, and go back to her room and turn the music up as loud as it was allowed to be. And she’d read. Books were safe harbors, full of other ways people saw and lived in the world, or their portion of it; even their horrors weren’t hers; she bathed herself in the balm of words and and authors and titles and ideas and stories and history, and in the music her clock-radio put out.
Gradually she heard one voice become ascendant over the others. It was not as sharp, an almost reasonable voice that soon reduced the others to murmurs.
It calmly reasoned that as she was the source of tension in the family, the Causer of Family Pain and Angst, it naturally followed that if she were gone, her family’s problems would be solved. She considered it; it made sense. She saw the logic of it; almost the relief of it.
She found a pen and paper, and wrote out the explanation of the plan and its elegant reasoning. She folded it neatly, went up the stairs and into her parents’ room and propped it against her mother’s jewelry box. A quick stop by the bathroom provided the tools she’d need: some of those vials of pills – red and blue and yellow.
She floated down the stairs, swung lazily around the end of the banister and once back in her sister’s room, she perched on the edge of the bed. She clutched the small bottles in her sweaty palm more as one might a talisman than a weapon of self-destruction.
She gazed out at the still lake with its reflections of the clouds overhead; it was a rare blue sky day, and all the colors she saw were brighter than usual. She fancied that she could almost see the bright gold in the centers of the pond lilies.
Suddenly there was a change in her perspective, and her focus was forced onto a tree in the yard. Then came another fluctuation, perhaps generated by the power of the talisman she held, and she was suddenly sitting in the tree and looking at herself through the window sitting on the bed, ready to commit suicide.
She had read of this phenomenon, astral projection, but was too caught up in the experience to remember what it might mean. She gazed at her other self with a bit of off-hand pity, but compassion, too, that her self on the bed clasping the pills was so tied, so chained…to that freedom-less place of unnecessary agony. Didn’t she know of all the other possibilities that lay beyond? Couldn’t she see how self-aggrandizing it was to imagine herself at the center of her messed up family’s hidden pain and anger? That harmless sixteen-year-old, about to kill herself for want of approval withheld by parents who had had approval denied them, too? It was too ludicrous to bear!
The absurdity of it hit both of her selves at once, and they chuckled together; the chuckles became giggles, then laughter, and finally soul-cleansing flat-out, heads-thrown-back… mirth. They laughed until Astral-Self snapped back into her, the two once again united.
She became aware of her left hand, unfurled her fingers, saw the nasty vials, and said ‘Oh’ in surprise. She went up the stairs, tucked them back into the cupboard, and retrieved the note to her parents.
Stepping outside she was free. Or at least on the road to freedom.